A trip to Albania, land of the Eagles – Part Two

Apartment buildings in Laç.
Usien, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The family we stayed with were very hospitable, and as they were being paid something for the inconvenience of us staying there, I am sure we were very welcome!  B and I and our lovely interpreter unpacked our small amount of luggage (no party clothes required!) and got settled before joining the family in the living room.

I don’t recall the specifics, but what followed was to become the norm.  Activity in the kitchen area for some considerable time and then a setting of the table and finally a variety of dishes are placed on the table.  Set for three.  The honoured guests.  The rest of the family sit on the other chairs and sofa and chat amongst themselves as we eat.  I don’t remember much about the food – it was all fresh and tasty and always several different dishes for each meal.  The most memorable thing is that there were varying degrees of heat across those dishes.  One was hot, the next warm, the next lukewarm and the rest cool.  It was only much later we realised it was because they only had one gas ring with which to cook – and no oven to keep anything hot.  Once we, as the guests, had eaten, we would head back to our room to allow the family to sit at the table and enjoy their dinner in peace.

Despite the miniscule cooking facilities, they did possess a fridge.  This they shared with the next door neighbours.  The neighbours had a washing machine, which they in turn shared with our family.  This seemed to be a common arrangement.

Both of the daughters spoke a little English and we learnt the story of the brother from them after a few days.  The older sister had been married to a local Communist Party official.   At some point she decided to divorce him and move back in with her family.  In an act of revenge, the ex-husband and his henchmen appeared, took the brother away in the middle of the night and he ended up in prison.  He stayed there until  Communist rule collapsed and he was freed, whereupon he hot-footed it to Greece as soon as possible.   Can’t say I blame him.

When I got home, I managed to find a book which explained the system of State spying and records.  The state kept records on everyone – called a Biografi – neighbour could report neighbour, and did.  Presumably any slight could be used to report someone for something.  Very Soviet.

The next morning we all assembled from our various billets and met in the hall.  Most of us were followed by a rag tag gang of curious children, the number of which grew by the day.  A few of our group were African and the men in particular were viewed with a mixture of fascination, curiosity and some trepidation.  One lady, who was hosting a couple of people from the group was terrified of the black chaps and would cover her eyes if she saw them, never having seen their likes before.

The children were, as you would expect, very curious and glad of something new going on.  They were obviously not heavily monitored by their parents, as many of them would hang about with us for hours at a time and presumably only disappear when they were hungry.  I suppose at that point, children had little to fear, such had been the control of the general population by the authorities – although there were definite signs of that previous monitoring and control having disappeared.

The children were interesting – some were very small for their age, some looked very wizened – old before their time – and a few looked robust and healthy (possibly the offspring of previous Party members?).   Over the first few days, each child seemed to attach themselves to one of us as their favourite.  My little shadow was a girl of probably around 7 years old, short curly blonde hair, who always wore shorts, tee shirt and some plastic sandals.  She would smile sweetly and just follow me around all day – and sit as close as possible when she had the chance.

Occasionally, we would be invited to visit the homes of some of the other hosts.  We learnt quickly that we had to remember how to gesture correctly if offered a refreshment.   In some parts of Albania, “yes” is shake of the head, and “no” is a nod.  So we often went without after being offered a cold drink in the heat!

On one visit, a wonderous discovery was made and this brings me back to the horror I mentioned earlier – our family “bathroom”.  Come with me to the facilities which were shared between the grandmother, the parents, the two grown daughters, B and me, and our interpreter.

A gloomily lit room with concrete floor and concrete walls.  To the left, a squatting area over an open hole set in  ceramic tile.  Above that, a small hose attached to a tap sticking out of the wall to use for flushing.  But not only to flush – for there was no handbasin.  This was also to wash your hands, brush your teeth and shower – with all water going down the toilet hole.  On the other side of the room were several large receptacles for storing water (not a bath amongst them!).  These were for holding water to use for the 20-22 hours a day when there was no supply of running water.  The household would awaken around 0400, when someone started to fill all of the containers as the water supply came on.  It was far too early for ablutions, and those receptacles needed filled.  So, our showers usually took place late afternoon when the second hour or so of water supply was running.

I remember clearly thinking I would never manage to use that toilet – but of course, nature will insist eventually.  It did take me back to the “Chinese toilets” I was familiar with as a kid, although we avoided them if at all possible.

This brings me back to the wonderous discovery at the home where the two African chaps were staying – henceforth referred to as “The Princes” – a full on luxury Western bathroom! Naturally, every single one of us made use of the facilities during that social visit and The Princes remained a source of some envy for the rest of the trip.   In hindsight, I do wonder how that family managed to find the funds to get it installed.  Albania has always been a bit of a bandit nation and even at that point, the previously heavily controlled population were beginning to test the range of freedom that governmental collapse permitted.    There were sinister characters loitering on street corners and we did hear the occasional gunshot.  We didn’t much venture out after dark.

© Annie Dee 2024